Chase Woodruff, Colorado Newsline
A Denver courtroom on Monday heard opening arguments in a legal challenge to former President Donald Trump’s constitutional eligibility to seek that office again, in a landmark case widely expected to ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a lawsuit filed last month on behalf of six Colorado voters, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington alleged that Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election disqualify him from Colorado’s presidential ballot under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Section 3 of the Civil War-era amendment bars anyone who took an oath to uphold the Constitution and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding office in the United States.
The suit named both Trump and Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, as defendants. The Colorado Republican Party, which has certain powers under state law to determine ballot access for its candidates, has been granted so-called intervenor status and will also participate in the trial.
“Donald Trump tried to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election,” says the lawsuit, which was filed on Sept. 6 in Denver District Court. “His efforts culminated on January 6, 2021, when he incited, exacerbated, and otherwise engaged in a violent insurrection at the United States Capitol by a mob who believed they were following his orders, and refused to protect the Capitol or call off the mob for nearly three hours as the attack unfolded.”
Similar lawsuits have been filed, and in some cases dismissed, in states including Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. But the Colorado case — the first to be filed by CREW, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., and the first to go to trial — represents the most substantial test for such efforts to date. CREW represented plaintiffs who cited the 14th Amendment in a successful suit to remove from office Couy Griffin, a county commissioner in Otero County, New Mexico, who had participated in the Jan. 6 attack.
In filings seeking the case’s dismissal, Trump’s attorney’s have made a variety of arguments, many of which relate to procedural matters or the state court’s jurisdiction over the issue. But they also flatly deny the substance of the suit’s insurrection allegations.
“After the 2020 election cycle, President Trump made various statements and took various legal actions questioning the fairness or accuracy of the announced results,” Trump’s attorney’s wrote in a Sept. 29 motion to dismiss. “But he is hardly the first politician to do that — and Petitioners identify no facts that could convert this political controversy into an insurrection against the government.”
In August, Trump was indicted in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by federal prosecutors, who wrote that his “pervasive and destabilizing lies” had “targeted a bedrock function of the United States federal government.” The indictment followed criminal referrals by a special congressional panel that investigated the events leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Griswold is an outspoken critic of Trump who has said the former president did “incite an insurrection and attack our democracy.” But she is named as a defendant in the lawsuit because she “has not committed to excluding Trump from the presidential ballot,” the plaintiffs wrote. Griswold has called the 14th Amendment claims “not a cut-and-dry case,” and said she wants a court to weigh in on the matter.
One of Trump’s attorneys in the Colorado case, Scott Gessler, is a former Republican secretary of state. While holding that office, he defended his authority in 2012 to bar constitutionally ineligible candidates from the Colorado ballot, in response to a lawsuit brought by Abdul Hassan, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Guyana who sought to make the presidential ballot in 2012.
That case eventually produced a ruling by the Denver-based Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in which future Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch affirmed that “a state’s legitimate interest in protecting the integrity and practical functioning of the political process permits it to exclude from the ballot candidates who are constitutionally prohibited from assuming office.”
Gorsuch’s ruling in Hassan v. Colorado is cited by CREW’s attorneys in the complaint against Trump and Griswold, and has been identified by the group as one reason it viewed Colorado as a “good venue” in which to bring its first 14th Amendment case against Trump.
Judge Sarah Wallace, who was appointed to her seat on the Denver District Court by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis last August, will hear the case. Ahead of the trial, she has denied multiple motions to dismiss the case filed by Trump’s attorneys on procedural grounds.
Wallace’s latest order, issued Oct. 25, rejected arguments from Gessler that the case raised “nonjusticiable political questions” or was preempted by federal law. It did not, however, respond to arguments that disputed “whether President Trump engaged in an insurrection.”
“This is an issue that will be addressed at the hearing set to begin October 30, 2023,” Wallace wrote.
Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: email@example.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.